Time to Reboot Franco-Australian Relations
“Australia’s relationship with France matters. Trust, respect and honesty matters. That is how I will approach our relations.” In a highly anticipated visit to Paris on July 1, newly elected Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese sent a clear message to his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron: Australia wants to repair and reset its relations with France. In a joint statement released on the same day, both leaders committed to “building a closer and stronger relationship” on the basis of a “new agenda for cooperation.”
This positive visit followed months of tensions between Paris and Canberra. In September 2021, the surprise announcement of the AUKUS security partnership between Washington, Canberra, and London, and the termination of the submarine program between Australia and France, resulted in the most significant diplomatic break between Canberra and Paris in decades. Despite shared interests and priorities in the Indo-Pacific, cooperation between France and Australia stalled on every front. The personal enmity that developed between President Macron and former prime minister Scott Morrison meant that a change in government in Canberra was necessary for there to be an effective reset in the French-Australian relationship.
Such a reboot is much needed given the mounting strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Renewed cooperation between France and Australia will be critical as China’s influence grows across the Pacific. While the U.S.-Australian alliance will remain the cornerstone of Australia’s defense policy, France and Australia should explore areas where they can expand their security and technological collaboration. And Washington should encourage the rapprochement, as it will contribute to the United States’ efforts to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Breakdown After AUKUS
French-Australian relations reached a historic low point after the announcement of AUKUS. For Paris, the unexpected termination of its submarine program with Canberra was a major blow given the strategic significance of this project. Far more than merely a commercial venture, this contract was often described as a “50-year marriage,” creating opportunities for collaboration in defense planning, weapons, communications, and intelligence. Furthermore, the French government was deeply disappointed by how the decision was made and announced, describing it as breaking “the relationship of trust” between both countries.
Paris reacted strongly—excessively for some—by recalling for the first time its ambassadors to the United States and Australia. Paris and Washington managed to come out of the crisis rather quickly, notably by adopting an ambitious bilateral roadmap following a meeting between President Macron and President Biden in Rome on October 2021. In contrast, French-Australian relations remained in a stalemate. The French ambassador to Australia ultimately came back to Canberra, but only with a mandate to “redefine the terms” of the bilateral relationship. A few months later, France publicly announced a “re-evaluation” of the French-Australian strategic partnership that initially concluded in 2012, which meant in practice a downgrading of the relationship.
Despite the poor state of the bilateral relationship, both countries nonetheless managed to maintain their practical cooperation on some issues, starting with their support to Pacific Island states. Using a trilateral arrangement known as the “FRANZ mechanism,” France, Australia and New Zealand coordinated emergency assistance to Tonga after it was hit last January by a massive volcanic eruption.
Both countries cannot afford a stalemate in their relationship. France and Australia are neighbors in a sense, with French New Caledonia sharing a maritime border with Australia and located just 750 miles away from Australia’s northeastern coastline. New Caledonia will remain part of the French Republic in the foreseeable future, following its December 2021 vote against independence which was the third and final referendum scheduled in the 1998 Nouméa Accord. Moreover, both Australia and France have long been bound by shared values and security interests, which led them to fight together during World War I and II, and, more recently, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Paris and Canberra have recently demonstrated these shared values, sanctioning Moscow and assisting Kyiv as it faces a brutal war of aggression.
French and Australian approaches to the Indo-Pacific are also fundamentally convergent. Both countries seek to promote a rules-based order in the region and are deeply concerned by China’s aggressive activities. Contrary to some reports about France being “too soft” on China, Paris has actually hardened its posture toward Beijing in recent years. In its latest white paper, France describes Beijing as a “systemic rival,” and then as an “economic competitor,” and “sometimes an important diplomatic partner.” While being mindful of the need to strike a balance between competition and collaboration, France is increasingly ready to serve as a counterweight to China’s rise, including in the military domain. The French navy regularly sends warships in the region, including through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, to promote the freedom of navigation.
Changing circumstances are providing a need for both countries to draw closer together. Mounting strategic competition across the Indo-Pacific region has made clear that those nations that desire a region that is open to all and free from coercion must work together. This will be especially true in the Pacific, where Beijing has recently concluded a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that remains a cause of concern in and beyond the region. There are anxieties that such a deal undermines the stability of the region, undercuts regional institutions, and thrusts it into the center of a geopolitical competition.
Moreover, there is concern that such a deal merely previews Beijing’s ambitions to become the dominant regional power. Beijing is looking to significantly expand its presence, influence, and control of the Pacific, as a means to secure power projections capabilities. The full scope of Beijing’s plans can begin to be seen in the leaked economic and security deal Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi offered on his eight-country travel through the region in June. While the deal was rejected by Pacific leaders, Beijing signed 52 bilateral agreements during Wang’s trip and shows no signs of tempering its desire to expand its influence across the region.
Shaping a New Bilateral Agenda
Against this backdrop, the new Australian government quickly signaled its desire to mend ties with France. Only a few days after his election, Prime Minister Albanese had a “warm and constructive” phone call with President Macron, with both leaders agreeing to “rebuild a bilateral relationship based on trust.” Concurrently, the Australian government reached a settlement with the French shipbuilder Naval Group over the canceled submarine program. The official communiqué underlined that “now that the matter is resolved we can move forward with the relationship with France.”
The joint statement adopted in Paris offers a promising basis for relaunching cooperation. France and Australia pledged to build a new bilateral agenda on defense and security, resilience and climate action, and education and culture. French and Australian officials will be looking to develop a “detailed roadmap” by the end of 2022. While the potential areas of cooperation are many, both countries could particularly focus on the following priorities: supporting the Pacific Islands, countering China’s influence efforts, and bolstering their defense cooperation.
First, France and Australia share a desire to promote a Pacific region that is capable of offsetting the worst aspects of climate change, powerful enough to withstand resource exploitation, free from external coercion, and resilient in its regional institutions. Both countries should therefore expand their joint support to their Pacific Island neighbors, in particular to combat climate change, fight illegal fishing, and protect the environment. They should also seek to strengthen Pacific regionalism, most particularly the Pacific Islands Forum, which French New Caledonia and Polynesia are part of. In this regard, Paris should consider joining the “Partners in the Blue Pacific” initiative recently launched by Washington with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Second, Paris and Canberra should work together to counter Beijing’s influence efforts, which are aimed at changing countries’ politics and societies. Australia has much experience here and could partner with France on such initiatives in New Caledonia, where Beijing is quietly increasing its influence to secure its imports of nickel. France and Australia should also deepen their cooperation to address disinformation campaigns and malicious cyber activities, including those originating from China.
Third, France and Australia should enhance their security and defense cooperation. The joint statement already lays out promising avenues. Both countries will work toward greater intelligence sharing, joint maritime activities, and reciprocal access to their defense facilities. Interestingly, the statement also mentions the need to deepen the cooperation with India, alluding to a potential revival of the France-Australia-India trilateral grouping. Finally, France and Australia agreed to develop their cooperation on space and critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum.
Revived cooperation between Australia and France should receive a warm welcome, and helpful encouragement, from the United States. The entire thrust of Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy has been to encourage like-minded allies and partners to draw closer together and pool resources and knowledge with the goal of creating more options and opportunities for smaller nations looking to push back against Beijing’s corrosive efforts to undercut democracy, increase corruption, project power further afield, and overawe and coerce smaller states.
Washington seems committed to playing an enlarged role in the Pacific, as evidenced by the recent announcement of its Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative, its push to renew its compact agreements with the Micronesian states, and its increasing diplomacy with the region. But it cannot and should not aspire to do everything on its own, nor does it need to play a hand in every new regional initiative. The closer the bonds, the alignment, and the activities of like-minded nations working to preserve the security, prosperity, and stability of the Pacific, the better Washington’s own interests are promoted. Australia and France stand at the forefront of those nations.
Charles Edel is the Australia Chair and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.All rights reserved.